Sri Lanka: what lies ahead?

Published : May 27, 2000 00:00 IST

OFFICIAL censorship in Sri Lanka has not been able to sanitise, let alone hide, the rapidly unfolding military truth in the Jaffna Peninsula - the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is on a triumphal offensive and the Sri Lankan state's hold over it s Northern Province seems on the verge of collapse. Stunning military victories at Elephant Pass and then at Pallai, a major military base about 15 km north of Elephant Pass; the LTTE's offer of a "temporary ceasefire" to facilitate the army's "evacuatio n" from the Jaffna Peninsula; the seizure by Tiger commando units of a section of the "strategic" Navatkuli bridge barely 3 km from Jaffna town and severance of the A9 highway (Kandy Road); the capture of "vital strategic locations" in the proximity of J affna town, posing a "serious threat" to the Sri Lankan forces in the Peninsula; the overrunning of two major military bases at Kovilakandy and Thanankilappu in the Chavakachcheri sector; the advance of heavily armed LTTE combat units to various points i n the Jaffna municipal areas, causing "panic and confusion among the government troops" and a process of "collapse" in the army's command structure; the overrunning of Sri Lankan military positions at Navatkuli and Thatchanthoppu and "breaking through" t he defence perimeters of the Kaithady military base; the seizure of the Kaithady military complex as well as the section of the A9 highway linking Navatkuli bridge and the main Kopay Road, "posing major logistic problems to thousands of troops stationed in the Thenmarachchi division of the Jaffna Peninsula"; intensified artillery bombardment of Kankesanthurai harbour and the Palaly air base, "the only lifelines" of sea and air supply to the army; the LTTE's appeal to thousands of Sri Lankan soldiers "en trapped in the Jaffna Peninsula" to lay down arms so that they could be "treated with dignity and honour" and handed over to the International Committee of the Red Cross within 24 hours; repeated appeals to "the Tamil civilian masses" to move away from b attle zones to assigned "safe locations"; the "liberation" of Chavakachcheri town, the capital of Thenmarachchi division, by "columns of heavily armed" LTTE commandos... This is the ongoing story of the strategic offensive as told by LTTE press releases posted on pro-LTTE web-sites. Allowing for exaggeration, propaganda and psychological warfare, it is a story that basically expresses military reality. (The government has, however, claimed that the army killed more than 150 LTTE fighters in a recent bat tle at Sirasalai near Chavakachcheri.)

How a fairly well-armed and well-equipped army of some 40,000 in the Northern theatre of Sri Lanka's civil war, including a force of more than 25,000 supposed to be entrenched in the Peninsula, has continually lost ground to 7,000 to 12,000 LTTE fighters needs quite a bit of explaining. As Lt. Gen. A.S. Kalkat (retd.), the overall commander of the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka, points out in the interview published in this issue of Frontline, "if the Sri Lankan army decides to st and and fight, it will really mean that the LTTE is trapped." For one thing, the latter's forces "are now all concentrated around Jaffna"; the Sri Lankan army has "more than sufficient strength" to thwart its adversary and even "put in a large enough for ce behind the LTTE"; and Jaffna Peninsula, being fairly open and uncongenial to guerilla warfare, permits "the full employment of air power and artillery." This is a professional assessment that posits a normal fighting situation. However, as the man who led the IPKF against the Tigers between 1987 and 1990 implies, the situation that has developed in the North of Sri Lanka over the past several months is far from normal. The rapidly deteriorating performance of the Sri Lankan army against the LTTE has been a function of poor leadership, "non-existent" morale and motivation, and, possibly, cumulative and all-round "battlefield fatigue."

Under the circumstances, the strategic offensive launched by the LTTE and code-named "Unceasing Waves 3" has seemed virtually unstoppable. As early as in November 1999, the organisation's supremo, V. Prabakaran, claimed in his Martyrs' Day message that " our current military successes" in the Vanni "have surprised and astounded the world" and represented "a unique historical achievement in the art of contemporary warfare." He highlighted "the speed of our strikes, the ability of rapid deployment, the uni fied command, the high discipline, the spectacular offensive tactics and the tremendous courage displayed by our fighting formation" and boasted that the LTTE had "the military capability to liberate our homeland." Interestingly, he asserted that the oth er side of the coin to the LTTE's rapid success in the Vanni fighting was the sudden collapse of the Sri Lankan army's "colossal military structure with its multiple military complexes, well fortified bases and camps." This, it is clear now, was no empty boast.

The political message in Prabakaran's November 1999 address is worth equally close attention at the present juncture - when there is some kind of expectation of decisive military events paving the way for a cessation of hostilities, talks and a negotiate d political settlement to Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict. He characterised the two major "Sinhala political parties" - the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP) - as "essentially chauvinistic organisations" steeped in "the anti- Tamil Sinhala Buddhist racist ideology." Denouncing President Chandrika Kumaratunga as "a modern representative of neo-Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism" and her five year rule as "a curse on the Tamil people," he said that it had inflicted "a permanent scar o n the soul of the Tamil nation." Implicitly claiming to deal with the enemy, the Sri Lankan state, from a position of strength ("the LTTE stands today as a formidable force, with the military capability to liberate our homeland"), he nevertheless asserte d that "we have not abandoned the path of peace."

Prabakaran reiterated that the LTTE was prepared to enter peace talks "with the assistance of international third party mediation." He also emphasised "the necessity of creating certain objective conditions conducive for peace talks." These objective con ditions were specified to be "a situation of normalcy free from military aggression, occupation and economic strangulation of the Tamil nation." The LTTE supremo explained that since "Chandrika was not prepared to bring an end to the war, to stop the mil itary aggression of our land and to lift the economic blockades," his organisation had rejected outright her proposal "to hold secret talks with certain conditions while continuing the war effort." This was a reference to the Sri Lankan President's insis tence that talks with the LTTE with a view to finding a political solution should be within a specified time frame and that, depending on the progress in the talks, there would be progressive de-escalation. Prabakaran's stance was that there was no quest ion of the LTTE engaging in "a negotiating process with conditions and time frames." For good measure, he re-stated that "Tamil Eelam is our homeland... a land that forms the very foundation of our national identity" and that "the anti-Tamil Sinhala raci st political system... offers no alternatives to the Tamils other than to fight, secede and establish an independent Tamil state."

There is absolutely no reason to believe that, after the major military victories won in the mainland North and then in the Jaffna Peninsula, the LTTE and its supremo are prepared to negotiate a devolution package along federal lines within Sri Lanka. Si nce it launched its armed struggle for Tamil Eelam, there is no instance of the LTTE talking substance relating to a political settlement within the framework of Sri Lanka's unity and territorial integrity. It has always been uncompromisingly committed t o the secessionist goal through armed struggle and terrorist methods. The ongoing tragedy of Sri Lanka is that the LTTE's bloody quest for Eelam is a pipe-dream, the attempt to suppress by military force the armed struggle for Eelam has yet again been de monstrated to be a pipe-dream, yet blood continues to be shed on an appalling scale.

Political India's response to a situation whose consequences and implications it cannot ignore must essentially build on the policy framework laid down by the Government and supported by all major political parties. First, India is firmly committed to th e unity and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka and is, therefore, uncompromisingly opposed to the LTTE's project of Eelam. Secondly, India urgently favours a just and democratic political solution offering devolution on federal lines to the Tamils within the framework of a united and multi-ethnic Sri Lanka, where people belonging to all ethnic communities can live in equality and peace. Thirdly, India is willing to play a pro-active role in helping Sri Lankans find such a solution. This must be recognis ed to be a response to a grave new situation and a break from the hands-off, if not politically isolationist, Sri Lanka policy pursued by successive Indian governments for a full decade (March 1990, when the IPKF completed its withdrawal, to May 2000). I n articulating this element of a changed policy, External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh has gone so far as to say that the Government of India is now prepared to consider mediation if approached by both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. How the Go vernment proposes to have mediatory dealings with an organisation designated as terrorist under Indian law, on which a legal ban has only recently been extended, and what the terms of reference will be for the mediation (if the first obstacle is somehow overcome) is not at all clear.

However, the new situation provides an opportunity for another kind of mediation - between the People's Alliance (P.A.) government and the opposition UNP, which has publicly favoured a major role for India in finding a way out of the present crisis. The Kumaratunga government's October 1997 Proposals for Constitutional Reform go further than any other attempt made over the past half century to resolve the Tamil question on a just, federal and enduring constitutional basis. Unfortunately, the pattern of the main Opposition party opposing any forward-looking move made by the government to resolve the ethnic question has continued, playing once again into the extremist hands of Prabakaran. While President Kumaratunga has made it clear that even in the pre sent crisis she remains firmly committed to these proposals, the UNP has dodged the hard issues relating to devolution, choosing to confine itself to generalities. It now has a major opportunity to break with the past and make a difference to the future.

The Kumaratunga government's proposals for constitutional reform envisage an indissoluble Union of Regions, elected regional councils, devolution along substantively federal lines, an equal status for Tamil along with Sinhala as an "official" and "nation al" language, and equality for people belonging to all communities, languages and religions. However, there is one significant respect in which the government's proposals are deficient from a moderate Tamil standpoint, in fact, inferior to the devolution framework offered by the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987. This relates to the unit of devolution in the North and East. Whereas the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement brought provisional merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces that has survived all subseque nt vicissitudes and remains in place, the government's proposals for constitutional reform (Article 127 read along with the First Schedule) require that a referendum will be held in the administrative districts of Trincomalee and Batticaloa in the Easter n Province to decide whether they would merge with the Northern Province to constitute the North-Eastern Region. This is in addition to the proposal to excise the Amparai electorate from the combined Tamil-majority region and the proposal to constitute t he predominantly Muslim polling divisions of Kalmunai, Sammanthurai and Pottuvil as a separate South-Eastern Region. Since the UNP manifesto for the 1999 presidential election proposed an interim council for a fully combined North East (which a previous UNP government ordained into being) and the opening of a more or less unconditional dialogue with the LTTE in a context of "de-escalating the war," the chief Opposition party can only win favour with the Tamil people by pressing for a better unit of devo lution offer. This should do away with the provision for a referendum in the Trincomalee and Batticaloa districts on the question of merging with the North. If possible, the (Tamil-speaking) Muslim people and their political leaders in the Kalmunai, Samm anthurai and Pottuvil electorates must be persuaded by the two main parties to opt for an autonomous status within a combined North-Eastern Region.

If the government's proposals for constitutional reform, with such wisely conceived improvements, can be adopted and become the supreme law well before parliamentary elections are held in a few months, a strong signal will go out to the Tamil people and to democratic Tamil parties that a decisive break has been made with the past. While it is too much to expect that Prabakaran's LTTE will accept the new constitutional framework and give up its secessionist goal and extremist ways, such a political devel opment is likely to bring about a qualitative change in the affairs of Sri Lanka. India must, in its new pro-active policy mode, encourage political Sri Lanka to take this just and wise path.

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